For the past 120 years, visitors to the Warrenton (Va.) Cemetery have paid homage to 600 unknown Confederate soldiers buried in a mass grave underneath a simple marble monument.
Now, thanks to an Illinois man who stumbled upon a misplaced list and then spent years traveling to libraries and archives around the South, most of those soldiers will be honored by name.
Tuesday, a groundbreaking for a memorial wall where the rediscovered names of 520 “unknowns” will be permanently engraved drew a small crowd despite heavy winds and numbing rain.
“We thought that these soldiers had been lost forever,” said Elizabeth Lineweaver, a member of the Black Horse Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which organized the $140,000 project.
That might have been the case if not for Robert E. Smith, an electronics technician from Carpentersville, Ill.
The soldiers died of wounds suffered in the First and Second Battles of Manassas and were buried in Warrenton - initially in separate graves - because it was home to a number of makeshift medical units. One particularly harsh winter, Union soldiers occupying the town staved off the cold by using the wooden grave markers for firewood. No record was left of who was interred where, and eventually the bodies were reburied in the common grave.
Smith, 55, a Civil War buff, has spent much of the past two decades cross-checking hospital records and poring over military logs in search of the final resting place of his greatgrandfather, a Confederate soldier from Alabama who died during the Second Battle of Manassas.
While poking around in a dusty box at the National Archives about 10 years ago, he found a list - placed in the wrong file - of those who had died in Warrenton after the Second Battle of Manassas.
“The box had been forgotten and the documents had been misplaced. I said, ‘This is too much information to just leave sitting here,”’ Smith recalled.
Through years of copious cross-referencing and travels to libraries and archives in Washington, Richmond, Georgia and Alabama, Smith verified the names and assembled a roster of those buried in Warrenton after the earlier battle. Then he sent all 520 names - of soldiers from 10 states - to Warrenton’s public library.
Lineweaver could not believe what had fallen into their hands.
“It was a loose-leaf notebook with pages filled with the names of unknown soldiers,” she said.
After checking Smith’s findings through independent research, the United Daughters of the Confederacy came up with plans for the three-foot-high circular granite wall. It is scheduled to be completed by Memorial Day weekend.
The group has raised a little less than half of the $140,000 needed and is seeking donations.
Meanwhile, Smith’s search for Private Charles Wilborn Smith, his great-grandfather, continues.
“Eighteen years of research and so far I’ve found everybody else’s ancestors but my own,” he said. “I’ll continue searching until the day I die.”